Putting it Together: Words & Music

Musical Theater in America


Age range: 15 to 18

Estimated Time: You can view all the videos in about 30 minutes, but you may want to allow some time in between to reflect on what you hear.

Key Technology: This multimedia resource is bandwidth-intensive, requiring a high-speed Internet connection. Users should be equipped with speakers (or headphones in a lab or classroom setting) and will need iTunes or Quicktime installed on their computers

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This fast paced 6-part series introduces middle and high school audiences to the many aspects of musical theater. Heather Nathans, Associate Professor of Theatre at the University of Maryland makes it easy to listen to and learn about musical theater in America. Using examples from Broadway, she talks about the history, structure and elements of musical theater, musical theater's role in making social commentary, its legacy and how you too can create a musical.

Think About...

Ready, Set, Learn!
Before you get started, think of what you already know about musical theater. Keep this in mind as you listen to the lectures. Pause the audio track now and then to sum up what you have learned or playback a segment to stop and think about what it means to you. Think about how your experience and what you know about musical theater matches what Heather Nathans is saying. Are you surprised by anything she says, does something feel familiar to you or validate your own observations?

Food For Thought
Take a look at the summaries of each of the lectures below. You may want to listen to each lecture one at a time and consider the questions that follow the summaries. See where these ideas may lead you and have fun!

The History of American Musical Theater

From minstrel shows and Vaudeville to the modern stage, a look at the trends and ideas that shaped American Musical theater.

Play a Simple Melody
The early forms of theater in America which led to the birth of the musical incorporated popular songs that were easy to sing and that didn’t necessarily help tell the plot of the story. Later on, the music became more tied to the story until the song had a story and character of its own and then to the point that the music could be both light hearted and soulful. Can you describe the progression which led to this modern version of the musical in terms of the music that was used over the years?

Something Old, Something New
Think of the example that Heather Nathans gives about Showboat which she identified as a “hybrid” musical. What do you think inspired its creators at that particular moment in time to shift away from the old style of theater without making a complete break from the past?

Circle of Life
Think about the evolution of the simplistic forms of theater when our country was young which pre-dated the musical up to the technologically advanced and sophisticated shows that are produced today as our democracy has matured some 240 years. Describe the parallels growth patterns that you see in musical theater, society, technology and the human sciences like medicine and psychology. Can you make any connections or draw parallels between musical theater and these trends?

What makes a musical a musical?

A musical is not a cabaret show and it’s not an opera, Join Heather Nathans as she deconstructs the musical and examines the distinct elements that make it unique.

Let’s Start At the Very Beginning.
Every musical starts out this way. Shortly after we meet the main character we find out something very important about that character when they sing what Heather Nathans calls their “I want” song. Why do you think this is a good way to start off a story? How does knowing the heart’s desire of main character make you care about that character? Why might it matter to you what the main character wants? Does it make you think of going for what you want in life?

Louder Than Words
Heather Nathans suggests that when done well the music and movement will let you know what you should be feeling even if you don’t get the words. How do you think this happens? Could it have something to do with the way our brains and bodies process sound and motion compared to dialogue?

Consider how many more professionals need to collaborate to create a musical than a simple dramatic play, and the special skills required by the performers. How do you think adding the element of music and dance to a play affects the creative process?

Social Commentary and Musical Theater

From The Beggar’s Opera to Avenue Q., musicals have commented on social issues for as long as there has been musical theater in America.

Let Me Entertain (and Enlighten) You.
People have always gone to the theater expecting to be entertained. What do you find interesting about theater which talks about social and political issues as entertainment? Why do you think we have such a long history of doing this? How does this relate to our first amendment right of freedom of speech?

I Can’t Believe You Sang That!
Avenue Q broke many barriers in terms of subject matter for musical theater. Can you think of a subject matter that has not yet been addressed by musical theater that now could be? Do you think there is a subject that might still present challenges as a tale for a musical venue or that would still be considered taboo for musical theater? How do you think we benefit by examining these difficult subjects through the lens of story, song and dance?

The Power of Song
There will always be issues of huge social importance to face; wars, poverty, injustice to name a few. At the community level there are also always topics of contention between people or groups like budget issues, environmental concerns, bullying and the like. What do you think might happen if your school, or community (or family) got together to put on a musical to deal with pressing issues you are facing? Could this be a way to learn about and talk about a difficult topic in a creative and maybe even a humorous or light hearted way?

Rock and Roll

As the rock musical gave way to the spectacle musical, shows like Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Starlight Express came to rely less on story and more on technology. Heather Nathans talks about the changes in musical theater in the last forty years and where musical theater appears to be headed.

The Times They Are A Changin’
Looking back at the history of musical theater in America, there was a period of relative stability followed by some pivotal points of change in the way musicals were presented. Describe when how the musical changed over the course of the last hundred years.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s musical theater hit a slump after about 60 years of relative stability. During this time the creative energy behind the musical was spent on creating extravagant special effects. Why do you think this change happened? Do you think this change was driven by audience demand or by creative inspiration or by the technology itself? Did we lose our interest in story? Did technology give us a sense of wonder, power, control? What else was happening in the world of art, politics, and culture at this time? How might that have had anything to do with this change?

From Caterpillar to Butterfly
As you can see, the history of musical theater is an art form that has gone through many changes and continues to thrive and be important to our cultural experience. Can you draw a comparison between musical theater and a living organism or as something that has a natural life cycle of its own? What can studying the history of musical theater reveal about our society that say the history of politics or science or legislation might not tell us?

How to Write a Musical

In this piece, Heather Nathans is joined by Joe Stein and Sheldon Harnick (writers of Fiddler on the Roof) and Stephen Schwartz (who wrote Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked) to talk about how a musical gets written.

Baby Steps!
If you wanted to perform heart surgery, fly an airplane or build a bridge there are things you know you would need to do first in order to be able to accomplish those goals. To achieve excellence in the arts requires the same kind of commitment and effort. What steps do you need to take to write a musical?

Not Exactly the Same Old Story
Stories come from many places, personal experiences, folk tales, history, the hero’s quest and so on. Think of the common elements of these kinds of stories and how they have been told through musical theater in the past. What are some subjects that you think you could turn into a story for musical theater? What twists of plot and character development would you use to tell this story?

What Grabs You?
Just about everything is interesting if you get interested in it. Thinking about the history of musical theater in America there have been famous personalities, prolific writers and composers, songs that have become part of our national identity, fortunes made and lost, the exportation of our culture around the world to name a few topics.

If you were to tell the story of the history of American musical theater as a musical play, how would you go about it?

Disney’s Role in Musical Theater in America

“Animation offers a medium of story telling and visual entertainment which can bring pleasure and information to people of all ages everywhere in the world.”

Walt Disney

There’s No Business Like Show Business
Music and dance have been part of American theater since the early days of our country. Think about what you heard from Heather Nathans and any Disney musicals you have seen. What do Disney musicals and Broadway musicals have in common?

What’s Good for the Goose is Good For the Mouse
When Walt Disney began making movies, that technology was in its infancy. Disney took the musical theater formula and put it into cartoons that were generally intended for children and families. How do you think Disney got the idea to do this? Were Disney’s musicals immediately welcomed by audiences or do you think they took some getting used to?

Think about the kind of entertainment that you enjoy, which is probably marketed to you and your friends. Can you imagine a way to repackage that same kind of entertainment to a different audience, say your grandparents or the military or factory workers?

Everything Old is New Again
In an odd turn, the Broadway musical exported by Walt Disney to cartoons in the 1930’s was returned to Broadway by Disney in the 1990’s. When musical theater hit a slump, Disney revived the business by bringing its cartoon stories to the stage. What do you think happened in America to make the musical theater go out of favor? Could it be because people were going to the movies instead? Or because the problems of society were too serious or not serious enough for the public to seek entertainment in the musical?

You’ve Come A Long Way Baby
Think about the long history of Disney; starting out in the animated cartoon business, then making feature length musicals, and then Broadway bound for spectacular productions. What do you think about a company that can be successful in so many ways? Why do you think Disney went back to Broadway with their musical know how? Was it an artistic ambition? Could it be because they saw an opportunity to make money? To capture a different audience? Were their movie audiences changing, thereby forcing them to reinvent their product?

Quiz Yourself!

  1. What is it that Simba from The Lion King sings about in his “I want” song?
  2. What is the most important step in writing a musical?
  3. What are the 2 main changes that happened to the musical in the 20th century?
  4. What type of comedy was The Beggar’s Opera?
  5. Name two things that are necessary for a play to be a musical.
  6. Two sources of American Musical Theater are?
  7. _________________ was one of the first plays to deal with a distinctly American Topic.


  1. He wants to grow up
  2. To get started
  3. Rock and roll, technology – spectacle
  4. Satire
  5. The "I want" song, song as a way of expressing larger than life emotions, poetry,
  6. European Tragic Opera, Comic Opera, Minstrelsy, Vaudeville, Operetta
  7. The Indian Princess

Learn More

Dig Deeper!

The episodes in this series have dealt with the opening songs and the songs that tell the story. What about the big finish? Take a look at some of the finales in the shows mentioned or others you may know and see what patterns or themes you can find. Here is a brief list of shows with their finale number

  • The King and I ("Something Wonderful")
  • Beauty and the Beast ("Transformation")
  • Snow White ("Some Day My Prince Will Come")
  • Fiddler on the Roof ("Any Day Now")
  • High School Musical ("Get ‘Cha Head in the Game")
  • West Side Story ("Finale: Tony and Maria")
  • South Pacific ("Finale (Dites-Moi)")
  • Avenue Q ("For Now")

American culture has been exported all over the world through cinema. In particular, Mumbai, India has taken cues from the Hollywood musical to create their own brand of singing and dancing in the “Bollywood” musical. Take a look at how the Bollywood musical reflects and influences an international audience. For more information see this PBS link.

For the Educator

Take some time to preview the video interviews before presenting this lesson to the class/student. Think about questions/comments your students may have when they view it to be ready for a group discussion of the content.

Collect a variety of recent magazines, newspapers, and internet headlines.

Let’s Get Started

This in-depth series on American musical theater examines:

  • the history and metamorphosis of musical theater
  • analysis of a musical
  • the musical as social commentary
  • musical theater as a reflection of culture
  • storytelling through song
  • Disney’s contributions to musical theater

How to Teach It

There are so many ways you can use this series. Think about these options:

  • an introduction to a musical theater field trip
  • an introduction to staging a musical
  • for a unit on creative writing and storytelling
  • for a unit on music composition
  • a music appreciation lesson
  • to find out what’s on your student’s minds
  • to enhance an American history lesson

Listen First

You may want to listen to the lectures as a large group. When you hear a point relevant to your group pause the audio so you can discuss it. Stop in between lectures for guided group discussion. Use the questions in the tab above to get the conversation going if you need to.

Instructional Strategies

Decide if you would like your class to work individually, in small groups or as a large group.

  • Individual or small group – each student/group would create a mini musical theater piece including:
    • A story concept
    • A plot with a beginning, middle and end
    • Cast of characters including main characters and supporting characters
    • Three songs including: an “I want” song, a song to move the plot along, and a finale number. The songs can be original or new lyrics written for existing popular tunes or existing popular songs which are appropriate to tell the story.
  • Large group - as a group the class would create one musical. Assign the following jobs to individuals or partners:
    • Producer – organizes the deadlines of the various jobs and over sees that everyone is progressing towards meeting their deadlines
    • Writer/s – develops the story concept, development of characters, dialogue, develops the plot which includes a conflict, climax and resolution
    • Composer/s – develop songs including an “I want” song a song to move the plot along, and a finale number. The songs can be original or new lyrics written for existing popular tunes
    • Technician/s – designs any needed technical support i.e.: sound, lights, special effects,

Supply your students with a selection current magazines, newspaper or Internet headlines.

Direct your class to choose a story from headlines and turn it into a musical by writing an “I want” song, a song to move the plot along and a finale. Come up with an idea of your own or choose one of the following ideas:

  • a crime
  • human interest story
  • sports story
  • weather story
  • odd ball story
  • political news



Ann Reilly


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